Another Week Ends

1. A really surprising-but-not-so-surprising study from Reason about moral outrage, and its psychological background. Not […]

Ethan Richardson / 3.3.17

1. A really surprising-but-not-so-surprising study from Reason about moral outrage, and its psychological background. Not necessarily new territory for us here, but nonetheless, the findings are not what our culture at-large would say is behind the anger du jour we know so well on our Facebook feeds. Generally speaking, psychologists have always thought that anger pointed at injustice is “prosocial emotion,” emotion that says more about our care for others than anything about us. Instead, this article makes the point that guilt within is the real culprit. When our own moral understandings of ourselves are thrown into question—when we feel guilty—self-promotion is not the only way we self-justify. Much of the time, we find a scapegoat. We crucify another.

[The] research shows that individuals respond to reminders of their group’s moral culpability with feelings of outrage at third-party harm-doing. These findings suggest that feelings of moral outrage, long thought to be grounded solely in concerns with maintaining justice, may sometimes reflect efforts to maintain a moral identity.

Our sense of identity is often threatened by ‘ingroup’ immorality. In layman’s terms: someone who comes from our circle—pick a circle, any circle—and does something/says something we tend to think ‘our type’ does not do, messes with us. It messes with our conception of ourselves (AKA our high, moral view of ourselves). We are faced with cognitive dissonance, with a truth about ourselves (and our group) that we would prefer not to see. And so, rather than deal with the pain of that dissonance, we throw our anger at some Other who will distract us from our own feelings of uncertainty and moral ambiguity.

What’s more, it seems we experience the reverse, too. Whenever we do have a third-party to blame, an outsider upon whom we can cast our stones, our sense of self-regard is heightened because of it.

“The opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doers” inflated participants perception of personal morality. Asked to rate their own moral character after reading the article blaming Americans for climate change, respondents saw themselves as having “significantly lower personal moral character” than those who read the blame-China article—that is, when they weren’t given an out in the form of third-party blame. Respondents in the America-shaming group wound up with similar levels of moral pride as the China control group when they were first asked to rate the level of blame deserved by various corporate actors and their personal level of anger at these groups. In both this and a similar study using the labor-exploitation article, “the opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doing (vs. not) led to significantly higher personal moral character ratings,” the authors found.

Speaking of moral outrage, this one, from McSweeney’s, is great. “Please Forgive My Microaggressions.” A semester’s worth of emails from a teacher to his class, the best of which is this one:

April 5

Hi Students,

I respect your right to protest injustice. Perhaps I was naïve. But I never imagined that I would be the focus of your rage. It seems, that in my effort to appease everyone, I have become too attentive. Some would say obsessive. One of you even used the word “paranoid” to describe the tone of my most recent status update. (I was only kidding. I’m not really going to have “sorry for everything” tattooed on my forehead so I won’t have to spend 10 minutes atoning at the beginning of each class.)

Because of my gross overreaction to your varied needs, from now on, all correspondence will be kept strictly to email. In fact, I have suspended all of my social media accounts, so please know that you have not been personally blocked. I would never do anything to intentionally hurt any of you.

Again, thank you for understanding.

2. Add these two to the “Busy Trap” files. We’re sort of done talking about busyness, to be honest, but articles like these continue to come up. Busyness, it seems, is not done with us. This one from the Wall Street Journal talks about the toll brought on by technology due to rise in the “always on” workplace, and the subsequent toll that phenomenon is having on health (and health care) costs in the US.

The Atlantic touched on busyness as an indicator of social capital/status. Whereas leisure used to be the sign of wealth, today, if you’re not busy, you must not be important.

The gleam of being both well-off and time-poor, the authors write, is “driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market.” In a curious reversal, the aspirational objects here are not some luxury goods—a nice watch or car, which are now mass-produced and more widely available than they used to be—but workers themselves, who by bragging about how busy they are can signal just how much the labor market values them and their skills.

3. I posted this video in the Ash Wednesday post I did earlier this week, and we’ve covered Zoltan in another Weekender, but this guy is just too wild to miss:

And speaking of Ash Wednesday, a zinger from the Bee: “Progressive Reverend Draws Question Marks With Ashes On Parishioners’ Foreheads”

“We just really don’t know, you know?” the Reverend said. “We knew we couldn’t go with a cross—far too offensive, really. We felt the question mark was much more open and inclusive than putting the horrifying symbol of a Roman execution device on everyone.”

“That’s what the gospel’s all about, I think? I just don’t really know,” she added.

4. And this one. I have tried, intentionally, throughout the entirety of the Weekender thus far, not to use the word. But it’s just so hard not to. And particularly because this article, it’s just so, well, you know the word…interesting. Never tell them I said so, though. I first heard the chastisement of “interesting” in Captain Fantastic. Viggo tells his kids that interesting is a thoughtless descriptor. This article is spot on—the term signifies an allure we have to baseless novelty, and allure to novelty means we choose not to look at what we’ve known forever. I’ll grant that. But personally? I’m way too entrenched in bad habits…

So, when you write or speak, don’t say that something is interesting. It might attract your interest, sure, but whether your audience finds something interesting is determined by a complex set of preconditions including their background knowledge and other items competing for their attention. Their interest depends, too, on their pre-existing emotional state. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5 ) states that ‘markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day’ over two weeks or more is one of the diagnostic symptoms of major depressive disorder. Meaning that, if your audience doesn’t find your astronomy talk interesting, the fault might indeed be in themselves, and not in the stars.

Conversely, if someone tells you ‘this is interesting’, remember that they aren’t describing the thing at all. They are describing the effect of that thing on them. Even though we hear it a lot from the would-be Vulcans around us, interesting is a subjective, emotional word, not the objective, logical word we want it to be.

5. I’ll leave the conversation to the cast, but this is the discussion in question: Rod Dreher’s new book was reviewed (negatively), and Dreher quotes an Australian reader’s comments on that review, who argues that the reviewer’s picture of secular democracy is one of the great problems of liberalism: that we’re going to get there one day—that we’re going to realize the great vision of the ideal.

And then people like Bruenig who say… you can accomplish your goals through politics, you have more political power than you realize.

What that…group just don’t get (partly because you Americans have postmillennialism deep in your DNA, whatever your faith and theological commitments are, and so you really do think that history’s arc bends towards justice, and so you are so insufferably pollyannaish that you think all stories can have a happy ending if we just tried harder. I’m not sure there has ever been a culture as resistant to being theologians of the cross rather than theologians of glory as Americans) is that their advice is going to make another part of the problem worse under your diagnosis. Throwing oneself even harder into rituals of social life in a democracy on democracy’s terms will just increase the catechizing and formative effects of those rituals and liturgies.

6. I’m looking forward to reading this piece on Tebow, both because I’m secretly rooting for his baseball career, and two, because I think David Fleming has a deep understanding of the kind of “glory story” the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” tends to gravitate towards. Bravo to him, for pointing the finger back at himself, and his cohorts. Whether or not you believe Tim Tebow to be on a revolving door of glory stories of his own, that’s for you to decide. I, for one, see him as expressing a bit of freedom here!

7. Finally, I’ll leave with a couple tear-jerkers that are very Lenten, i.e. will make you uncomfortably ponder death and the limited nature of “this mortal coil.” The first, just don’t read it. It’s from Modern Love, entitled “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” written by a dying woman coming to terms with the life she will not continue to have with the person she most cherishes. What it must have taken to write these words—what immense suffering, but also, what great love—like I said, just don’t read it.

And last, a really interesting (ugh! So close!) glimpse at The Giving Tree, not as a story of sacrificial love, but as a story of aging and the passage of time. Anthony Ford describes the meta-narrative phenomenon of The Giving Tree: how it both tells the story of the passage of time, but how its readers experience that same passage of time at the various benchmarks at which they read it. Hence, the parental waterworks.

And now the crux of it: for those of us who fondly remember reading The Giving Tree as a child, that memory itself stirs our longing. We now read the book to our children, as was read to us before we knew the loss age brings, back when the story was about nothing more than a tree’s tender love.

In concert, the act of reading and the narrative itself evoke the unspeakable loss and longing time has wrought since we first read about the tree who loved a little boy. And we weep.

But we cannot go back. We’re too old to play, and the tree we remember is gone. Our days of wholeness lie not in the past, but in the future: in our far-off country.

P.S. Local(ish) Friends: on Monday DZ is speaking about “The Art of Failure” here in Charlottesville, alongside Invisibilia‘s Lulu Miller (!) and musician Devon Sproule. Come if you can! An article about the event, with comments from all involved, appeared here.